Florida born singer Gwen McCrae is popularly known for a single song, 1975's smash "Rockin' Chair," but the deep voiced singer has recorded regularly for decades and has amassed a loyal following in both the US and Europe for her dance-oriented material and her expressive vocals.
McCrae grew up as Gwen Mosley in Pensacola, Florida, into a church-going family. Her mother played piano in the church and Gwen started singing in the choir at age seven. She continued performing as a teen, and began planning a career in music after high school. At age 20 she met fellow Florida resident George McCrae and the two married and began performing together professionally in the mid 60s. They were discovered by singer Betty Wright ("Clean Up Woman") and Gwen was introduced to Henry Stone, the Miami entrepreneur and founder of the Alston and TK record labels.
Gwen began as a background singer at TK before cutting a few tracks for the Florida label's subsidiary, Cat. She scored a moderate R&B hit with a cover of Ed Townsend's "For Your Love" but did not record a supporting album. Husband George (whom she divorced in 1976) hit it big first, as his hit "Rock Your Baby" became an across-the-board smash and helped put both disco and TK on the map. Gwen followed in 1975 with the Clarence Reid/Willie Clark composition, "Rockin' Chair," which hit the top five. Her rich alto voice sounded like she was still singing in church, but the lyrics were pure 70s pop/soul.
Over the next five years TK became one of the hottest labels around, but Gwen couldn't repeat the success of "Chair." She released a number of critically acclaimed albums (perhaps the best of which was Let's Straighten It Out, where she recorded a solid version of the Latimore hit) but failed to land another sizable hit in the US.
Despite her lack of success in the US, Gwen remained popular in Europe, and continued recording and performing there in the 80s. She returned to US-based Ichiban Records for a couple albums in the 90s, and later turned to Gospel, recording I'm Not Worried in 2004.
In 2005, Henry Stone (then in his 80s) had an inspiration and signed Gwen to his Henry Stone Music label to record an album of covers of TK's biggest hits. Over the next several months she made new versions of fifteen TK hits, working with producer George "Chocolate" Perry and a band of former TK stars such as Latimore (keyboards), Little Beaver (guitar) and Timmy Thomas (organ). The resulting album Gwen McCrae Sings TK, was released in May, 2006. Gwen McCrae Sings TK was a solid compilation and a reminder of the basketful of great songs that came out on TK in the 70s. And Gwen McCrae sounded flat out great, her voice perhaps even richer than it was 30 years ago. Her versions of the TK catalog are faithful and on occasion (especially KC's "Don't Go") even surpass the originals.
Gwen continued to perform and record until she suffered a stroke in 2012 that impaired her ability to walk and sing. But she remains one of the legendary singers of a legendary era.
By Chris Rizik